Sean Donnelly’s skates were a bit heavy when he dug them into the pregame ice at Mennen Arena on Thursday.
The Morristown junior and his teammates were preparing for a key Mennen Division battle with rival — and unbeaten Randolph — but Donnelly also carried an additional burden.
His aunt was gravely ill.
“I went on the ice before the game crying and telling myself I had to score for my Aunt Mare,” said Donnelly. “And I left the ice saying I did it for her.”
Indeed, the hockey gods were smiling upon Donnelly that evening at Mennen.
With Morristown locked in a 1-1 game and the minutes diminishing on the clock, Donnelly hustled into the Randolph zone and gathered a pass from linemate Riley Keller and delivered the game-winner with 3:50 remaining in regulation to give the Colonials a 2-1 win.
Morristown secured the victory that night and improved to 8-10-3. The decision boosted its chances of securing an at-large bid in the NJSIAA state tournament.
The triumph also brought Randolph’s unbeaten streak at 18 games (15-0-3) to an abrupt halt.
Aside from deciding the outcome for his team, Donnelly’s goal carried a deeper, highly personal significance as his beloved aunt passed away the following morning.
“I had tears in my eyes when I came back to the bench,” Donnelly admitted of the emotional moment. “It was pretty significant. I had told my dad I would try to score a goal for her. We got the puck out of our zone and Riley Keller and Ryan Daniolowitz broke up the ice. Ryan took a hit to make a play and then Riley skated into the circle and dropped it to me. I came in and it was just a blur. I wasn’t looking anywhere to shoot this time, it was more like a desperation shot to get it on net and hope for a rebound.
“I didn’t see it go in at first,” Donnelly continued. “But when I realized I scored I just felt so relieved. Then I saw my teammates coming at me. It was a must-win game for us really, so we emptied the tank those last three minutes to make sure we had it.”
Keller, Donnelly’s close friend who centers that second line along with Daniolowitz, were deeply moved by the moment along with their teammates.
“I had the puck and passed it back to him and he buried it into the net,” said Keller, a sturdy 5-11, 175-pound junior. “Sean is one of my best friends and that goal meant a lot to him. I was glad to be on the ice and to share it with him. He got that goal for his aunt. It was a tough time for him, but he played his heart out. It was really special for him and pretty emotional for our team, too. That goal meant so much to him.”
This winter has been a difficult one physically for Donnelly as well, as he’s struggled recently to overcome elbow and back injuries.
He suffered a lacerated elbow that required stitches in a game last month against Freehold Township, then endured a back injury when he crashed into the end boards in a battle with Summit. But he’s still endured and persevered through it all courageously.
“I just got the stitches taken out on Wednesday,” the 6-4, 165-pound Donnelly said, “and grinded through the back and neck pain to make it back to the lineup for the games when the team needed it.
“You could say that it’s been a tough season,” he continued, “but with the help of my teammates, the family and the brotherhood we share, it wasn’t hard to make it back into the lineup with the confidence I needed.”
Morristown senior co-captain Nate DeFares was impressed with Donnelly’s resolute, both on and off the ice.
“Sean had mentioned before the game that he wanted to score a goal for his aunt,” DeFares recalled. “But we really didn’t know that his aunt was that ill or what was going on. It was so special for him, though. It’s been a tough season for him with all the injuries, too, but he’s been playing so well and it’s impressive to see how he handled all of this. Most of us really didn’t know about his aunt, but he just went out and worked hard with the mid-set to put the team in a place to win.
“It meant so much to him and in the locker room after the game it was pretty emotional for all of us. You could see how passionate he was. It was special a special moment for Sean.”
Aside from it being a critical Mennen Division victory, and hopefully assuring Morristown of an at-large playoff berth when the NJSIAA state seeding committee convenes on Feb. 13, Colonials’ coach Bobby Jones was still moved the following day by Donnelly’s poignant goal.
“It was something surreal,” Jones, the former Morris Knolls standout who has guided Morristown to two NJSIAA state championships (Public B 2014 & Public A 2016) said.
“It was one of those moments that there was no way we were going to lose this game tonight,” Jones said. “Sean played his heart out.”
Written by Paul Bruno / @PaulBrunoHS
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